Got a toddler who can't seem to keep herself amused for more than 10 minutes? Ruth Brown schools up on the right way to get kids playing.
Play is child's work. It's how they develop their skills, exercise their young minds and give their imaginations a workout. So why, with a house full of toys, do children still find it difficult to keep themselves busy? A lot of it comes back to that age-old adage of quality over quantity. We're not talking expense, but rather the tried and true - the toys that have stood the test of time and remain perennial favourites for generations of children.
Toys are the "resources" that lure children into play and play time is crucial for their physical, emotional, social and cognitive development. The more studies that are carried out, the more researchers are finding out how important play is to child development.
In fact, play is so important the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights says it is a birthright of every child. However throughout the world a child's right to play time is being challenged - whether by poverty, exploitation, war, or in wealthy western countries such as New Zealand - living a hurried and pressured lifestyle.
The power of play is no better illustrated than in a study at a children's hospital ward. The study, undertaken by Rutgers University - Camden in New Jersey, looked at how children use play to cope with chronic illness.
Researchers found sick children were able to use their imaginations to help them handle stress. In one case a boy with asthma had his stuffed toys taken away as they were a possible allergy risk. Instead, he conjured up images of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and imagined them coming to life and jumping off his sheets to protect him.
Play stimulates imagination which in turn leads to independence. It also helps children learn how to problem-solve and make decisions. Then there are the obvious physical benefits of having a game of tag, or getting up the courage to tackle the "big slide" in the playground.
Keep it simple
So, what's the best way of getting children engaged in their own play and what are the best toys to inspire their imaginations?
"Think about your babies as little scientists - they are trying to understand how things are made and what their properties are," says Maureen Perry, an early childhood educator who runs parent and infant classes in Auckland.
"A toy should be able to do at least three things. If a toy can do more than one thing it encourages the child to find out the full range of what this toy can do."
But that doesn't mean you need a toy with literally all the bells and whistles. Just look at how much you can do with a whisk - you can use it as a drum stick on a bucket, swirl it through water, making patterns with it in the sand, suck on it… the list is endless. That's the sort of multi-use object Maureen Perry and other educators recommend.
She's a strong advocate of Hungarian early childhood expert Magda Gerber who said, "The simpler the toy, the more complex the play."
The kitchen cupboard is a great source of cheap toys that encourage imagination and fine motor skills. A wooden spoon, a cotton scarf and a colander will keep a young child amused and engaged for a decent length of time. And when it comes to kids, boredom is the mother of invention. Left to their own devices, children will start making up their own games - balls of play-doh on leaves become a scrumptious feast and a tissue translates into a nappy or blankie for baby (aka a plastic toy horse).
Learn from the little ones
As parents we sometimes forget the beauty and simplicity of play. And for many of us it's necessary to school ourselves up in playing with our children, without taking over.
Auckland University Faculty of Education senior lecturer, Jean Rockel reminds us that "children are the experts in play". She says she learned more about children's play from children than from books. "They are extremely creative in the way they manipulate and use resources. We tend to lose that as we get older and get more submerged in work."
So, the best thing you can do as a parent is to take 10 minutes to get down on the foor and play alongside your child. But try not to influence or direct their play - your child is working things out according to her own logic and if you try to interrupt that she could well turn away and lose interest.
Simply watch how your child plays and be aware of what she likes and which toys occupy her attention for long periods. Then build on these interests with similar toys and objects.
Playcentre volunteer Viv Butcher, from the Marlborough Sounds, says it's about playing alongside the child and sharing her sense of wonder.
"Sometimes our role is to stand back, watching and observing and trying to understand." For example, children often don't want to read books from front to back, or they don't want to read every word. "They have their reasons for doing it and we have to let them," says Viv.
The benefits of play
When you watch your child playing, don't think of it solely as fun and games. Think about all the wonderful things they're learning as they create that tower of blocks, tend to their doll's needs or simply roll a ball.
In 2007 the American Academy of Paediatrics released a report entitled The Importance of Playing in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds. It says, "Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practising adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers."
But the report says that despite the many known benefits of playing, children are getting less opportunity for free play. The authors suggest many parents feel the need to expose their children to every possible opportunity to excel, and are filling up their days with music, swimming and other scheduled events.
As a result of our increasingly hurried lives, we're risking losing out on opportunities to foster the parent-child relationship. When most of the time you spend together is driving from one lesson or activity to the next, you're not fully engaging with your child. The Academy of Paediatrics report says in some families "over-scheduling may lead to less emotionally competent, well-buffered children". It concludes by stressing that unstructured, free play needs to be given the same importance as academic and social opportunities.
Children in the three-to-five range are dealing with the two issues of socialising with others while learning how to make their bodies do new things. The age of parallel play is over and if they haven't already, the squabbles involved in co-operative play will start.
While play becomes more complex at this age, the equipment may stay very much the same.
Again, get down to their level and see what they're doing, says Liz Sutton from Titirangi Kindergarten in Auckland. Talk to your child about what fascinates her about the particular toy she's playing with. It might be a tractor and she's fascinated by the tracks its wheels are making in sand.
Try to build on this interest by taking a trip to Motat (Auckland's Museum of Transport) or a local farm. Look at different types of wheels, even drawing things in from left field to keep ideas sparking off. "It always comes back to sitting and playing with them and listening to what they are saying and reading the cues," says Liz.
If you find your kids are bored, even though the toy box is overflowing try taking everything away, leaving only those toys that really engage them. "Have an audit of what's there and pull back to what's really important," says Liz.
"Rather than getting more things for your child in a scatter-gun approach go out and spend some time looking for a really special thing so it's a lot more meaningful.
"Their learning starts to branch off in amazing directions. It's like watering a seed - you are putting water straight on the area that needs it."
Toys on show
Less is more when it comes to displaying toys. A plastic bin full of jumbled toys is unlikely to attract a child's investigation. Displaying no more than 10 toys at any one time cuts down on tidying up and avoids offering too much choice which can overwhelm children. Set out each toy or object attractively on the shelves. If one or two are ignored replace them with others and revolve the full set every month. Don't worry about the kids getting bored with the current display - boredom is a good impetus for further exploration.
A word from the toy-makers
So how do the international companies that make toys come up with ideas to entertain and sustain a child's interest?
Playskool's vice president, design, Brian Wilk says the top priority for designing toys is making a toy that's fun for children. "Because the best toys have multiple stages of development and learning, the brand also looks to create a engaging toy that will benefit a child in some way."
He says Playskool follows the guidelines for each age group and produces a range of toys to help "guide children through significant life milestones such as sitting up, crawling, standing, learning the alphabet etc".
Playskool's commercial success has been based on incorporating a fun, playful degree of learning into every product. It uses consumer feedback and market research to come up with reliable and engaging toys, he adds.
Dave Austin, owner of toy distributor Child's Play, says top quality is the first requirement when he's sourcing toys for the New Zealand market, even if it means the price is higher.
The next consideration is whether the toy is good value for money and whether it has good play value. "If I can't see that one of my kids would benefit from playing with it then I'm not interested."
He says the toy should require some kind of creative input from the child.
"If there's a level of creativity that allows the child to learn something and express creativity then there's some gain from that."
However, he's still a fan of noisy toys with all the bells and whistles. "Kids love them. We can't deprive children of them just because we don't like the noise," he says. "It's all part of the general development of the child. There's an opportunity for many types of toys."
One walk down the toy aisle and it's easy to get overwhelmed with the choices available.
According to voters in the OHbaby! 2011 awards, the best toy range for boys is Lego, with Thomas the Tank Engine coming second.
For girls the top toy was My Little Pony, with Dora the Explorer coming second.
When we asked parents to come up with their own suggestions, the Lamaze range took top honours for newborns, with FisherPrice - particularly its stacking toy - coming in frst for babies. Best Toddler toy was the FisherPrice Little People Range and the best educational toy was the LeapFrog fridge magnets.
Of course, there are plenty of fun and games and learning to be had with whatever you already have around the house. A couple of mums on the www.ohbaby.co.nz forums said tipping pegs in and out of a plastic bottle was a favourite pastime for their little ones.
One mum said her nine month old adored egg cups, funnels and lids, while another had an 18 month old who loved the washing basket - getting in and out of it, putting all his blocks and toys in it and then throwing them out again.
Containers and lids absorbed the attention of some kids while "planking" was a popular activity at one home. A wide piece of wood was used as a ramp from the coffee table for cars, as a balance beam between furniture and a stage when on the floor.
Another mum got creative with a formula tin, making slits in it for posting milk bottle lids. For another cheap and easy idea, get a four-litre ice cream container and cut a hole in the lid. Tape around the hole's sharp edges and stuff the container full of colourful scarves, ribbons or pieces of coloured fabric. Your baby will have fun pulling them all out again!
Make time for play
Play is a cherished part of childhood. We know that it promotes intellectual and cognitive growth, emotional intelligence and helps our child learn the tools they'll need to find their way in the world. The toy box is essentially your child's first classroom. Your role is to be a valued teacher - to encourage but not interfere, to provide but not overwhelm. Toys are a bridge between child and parent. Use them wisely and together you'll discover new joys about the world around you.
Top 10 classic toys
Our picks for the toys that all children should have are the toys that you yourself will have played with when you were young, and doubtless your grandchildren will enjoy too. A ball, a doll, a drum - some toys never go out of fashion.
Ruth Brown is the mother of two little girls. She is forever waging war on a tide of unappreciated toys strewn across the floor.
To contact Maureen Perry and read about the work of Magda Gerber: